Hope fades for poor patients at Kenyatta

What you need to know:

  • Some patients have come to the unit so many times that they have lost hope and said they are ready to die.
  • In the midst of all this frustration, the hospital maintains its position, saying patients will wait until April before they can resume treatment.

Millicent Wachuka has been living with cervical cancer for one and a half years.

A month ago, she started radiotherapy treatment to kill the cancer cells and to stop them from spreading.

After spending more than a year on the radiotherapy waiting list, Ms Wachuka was happy to start the treatment. Her doctor prescribed 25 sessions, one each day except on weekends.

Ms Wachuka had just completed her twentieth session when both radiotherapy machines at Kenyatta National Hospital broke down.

And with that, she started an agonising wait for the machines to be fixed, praying every day that she would get that magical phone call that would inform her that she could resume her treatment.

“They sent us away on March 9 and said they would call us when the machines are fixed. I’m still waiting for the call. My heart sinks as each day passes. I can’t believe that I might not complete them,” she says, adding that she has no money to pay for treatment in a private hospital.

It is easy to understand Ms Wachuka’s frustration.

Each morning, tens of patients line up at the radiotherapy waiting room, eagerly awaiting the treatment that could save their lives.

Ms Lucy Mwangi has seen them all. She is the recording officer at the radiotherapy department, the gatekeeper through which these patients must pass before getting their turn at the machines.

She records their vital details, contacts and course of their treatment.


When the machines are working, Ms Mwangi’s job is unpleasant enough because she is the who explains to new patients that they will wait for months, if not a full year, before they can finally get treatment.

She tells us that at the moment, the number of people on the waiting list stands at 1,300.

Since only 150 patients can use the machines at a go and treatment takes about six weeks, it means that any new patient prescribed radiotherapy has to wait a year.

But the past eight days have been a nightmare for Ms Mwangi.

“Since the machines broke down, I have the added heartbreaking task of turning away patients who have already started their sessions. They are happy to get treatment and I now have to be the person who tells them that treatment has been suspended indefinitely,” she tells the Nation.

She says that on a normal day, her department handles 150 patients.

“They start lining up as early as 6am, and the crowd only lets up in the evening when we close for the day. Radiotherapy is one of the busiest sections of this hospital,” says Ms Mwangi.

When we visited on Wednesday, the small waiting room was empty; a stark contrast to the hive of activity just a few days ago.

Ms Mwangi still mans the registration desk although she might as well take the day off because she has nobody to serve.

However, she stays on because someone has to be there to tell the few patients who turn up that they have to wait a bit longer for treatment.

“After turning away one particular patient three days in a row, he said to me that he would just go home and wait to die. He had lost all hope. I wish I could explain how demoralising it was for me,” she says.

The majority of patients cannot afford care at private hospitals where a single radiotherapy session goes for as much as Sh10,000.

KNH charges Sh500 only per session, which might sound low but can be a burden because of the number of sessions a patient goes through.

Ms Charity Wangui, for instance, says she has spent all her money on treatment at KNH and cannot afford to pay for treatment at a private hospital.

“I have stomach cancer. I had already completed 12 sessions. Thirteen more remain and I will have to wait until the machines at KNH are fixed,” she says.

Mr Peter Gachomba, a 77-year-old man who was diagnosed with prostate cancer eight months ago, is sailing in the same sea of misery as Ms Wangui and Ms Wachuka.

He had just started treatment when the machine broke down.

“I have only done 14 sessions. Getting treatment at private hospitals is out of the question for me because I cannot afford it. Even the treatment at KNH has had to be paid for by one of my sons,” he says.

But some patients have found help at Texas Cancer Treatment Centre in Lang’ata where they pay Sh3,000 per session compared to Sh10,000 at Nairobi Hospital.

Mr Amos Weru Njama, whose 60-year-old mother has stage two breast cancer, is among those who have sought an alternative at Texas.

“I couldn’t sit and watch her get worse as we wait for KNH to fix the machines. That is why I mobilised my family and friends to help me pay for my mother’s seven remaining sessions,” says Mr Njama.


In the midst of all this frustration, the hospital maintains its position, saying patients will wait until April before they can resume treatment.

The couch of one machine needs to be replaced, while the other’s components were damaged after a power surge.

“Importing parts of the affected machines will take time as they come from Canada. We are working with the timelines that the distributors have given us. There is nothing more we can do,” says KNH spokesman Simon Ithae.

He clarifies that patients admitted have been getting treatment from Nairobi Hospital at the expense of KNH.

“We cannot do much for the outpatients because they pay per session. But we have to take care of the inpatients and ensure that their treatment is not interrupted,” he explains.